Monday, March 09, 2009

More on Biblical narration and The Adventures of Augie March

Recently I suggested that Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March was in some respects like the Bible in its mode of narration. I had intended to say more about it but did not want to weigh down that earlier post. I won't go into great detail here, either, but I do want to mention something about how it was that I arrived at this idea. As part of this effort, I have since discussed "The Bible Open and Closed", an essay in which Gabriel Josipovici argues that the Bible's basic mode of narration is open (admittedly, that entry is more of a report than anything else). In fact, it was re-reading The Adventures of Augie March that once again brought Josipovici's argument to mind, prompting me to re-read the essay (which is of course much shorter than The Book of God, in which the same argument, among others, is dealt with in greater detail).

This, then, is the passage from Augie March that caught my attention in this regard (Augie, here, is working for his brother Simon at the latter's coal yard):
"Well," he said to Happy and me, "why don't you two take the car and go see some of the dealers? Try to drum up some trade. Here's five bucks for beer money. I'll stay here with Coxie and try to get that back fence in shape. They'll steal us blind [if] we don't do something about it." Cox was the handyman, an old wino in a slap-happy painter's cap that looked like an Italian officer's lid. He sent him scouting along the fence of the Westinghouse plant for old planks. Coxie worked for hamburgers and a bottle of California K. Arakelian's sherry or of yocky-dock. He was watchman too, and slept on rags back of the green lattice before the seldom used front door. Off he limped--he carried a bullet, he claimed, from San Juan Hill--by the mile-long big meshed fence of the corporation in which such needs as fences were met by sub-officers' inviting contractors' bids a tight steel net permitted all to look in at the vast remote shimmer, the brick steeples, the long power-buildings and the Vesuvian soft coal under the scarcely smeared summer sky and gaudiness.
It's that final detail about Coxie--"he carried a bullet, he claimed, from San Juan Hill"--that did it. Then I notice the other character details--he works for hamburgers or a bottle of sherry; sleeps on rags--do some of the same suggestive work. This character never appears again, but a life is briefly allowed to emerge here, before sinking back into the narrative, without any laborious back-story being filled in.

Again, I don't want to over-sell the comparison with the Hebrew Bible (not least because my experience with the Bible is highly limited!)--obviously, for just one example, Augie is the center of his own narrative. But I think such passages as the one quoted above, in the details I've highlighted, as well as Augie's general refusal to assign a meaning to his life and his uncertainty about it all, suggest an approach to literature that is more in the tradition of narrative, as argued by Josipovici, than in that of the novel, dominated as it is by story or even plot.


Jim H. said...


I'm very much drawn into your last three posts. Confession: I know nothing about Josipovici. It's only your and some other bloggers' references that have alerted me to his work. So much to read, so little time.

These posts about the centrality of narrative are rich and deserving of lengthy commentary, but, for purposes of brevity, let me pull out one strand that struck me as not quite spot on. You say (I think summarizing GJ) that the Bible resists meaning. If anything, the opposite is the case: it invites too much meaning (which, of course, may be the same thing).

The narratives are historical narratives. There are BIG historical figures: Moses, Elijah, David, Solomon, Jesus, Peter, Paul. There is the narrative of the liberation, founding, establishing, and fall of the ancient Hebrew state—its victories and defeats, its heroes and villains, its Cassandras and Priams.

But there are more than mere narratives. There are law codes (as deadly dull as reading the CFR), genealogies, love poetry, liturgical songs, and the ancient equivalent of talking head commentators (just as biased and annoying as any you'll find on FOX News or CNN). There are instructions on how to build a small home church or school, how to seduce important people to your point of view, how to deal with persecution, how to discipline traitors to your cause. There are even visionary passage that are, frankly, quite insane (Quick Hint: If you ever read so-called 'Apocalyptic' writings, think of the symbolism like you would an editorial cartoon, Say, in the '70s you saw a picture of a fierce bear playing cards with an equally serious eagle while a giant bomb destroyed the world on the table between them, you would know the Bear was the U.S.S.R., the eagle was the U.S., and the stakes were either disarmament or nuclear armagaddon. Etc.)

Now, what I meant by inviting too much meaning. Though there is the great sweep of narrative, too many people read each word as if it had direct meaning in their own lives at that particular moment. They over-interpret. Others read the cultural proscriptions (don't eat shrimp or pork—valuable sanitational issues for a nomadic tribe which lacked, e.g., refrigeration) as if they were still relevant, elevating these at-the-time culturally relevant bits of survival advice to nation-defining status. Others read the apocalyptic bits as if each element were a tumbler that must (when interpreted rightly) fall into place and signify the end of the world (the is Obama, e.g., the anti-christ debate that is being waged among the fundamentalists today).

In sum, there is a 'can't see the forest for the trees' approach to the Bible that is truly off-putting. GJ's narrative understanding sounds similar to conclusions I've come to over the years. I must read him. However, as for its resisting meaning, I must take some exception.

Jim H.

Richard said...

Hi Jim, thanks. You're of course right that people read all kinds of meanings into the Bible. In part, I think, this is because it has been presented as a repository of meaning, and people want justifications. And people feel like a sacred document ought to provide meaning.

For the purposes of this discussion, I highly recommend finding Josipovici's The Book of God. You can usually pick it up for very cheap (I bought it for $1 from Amazon). It addresses, I think, most of your points.